‘Questions, a Burden to Others’: The True Divisiveness of the Scottish Independence Referendum

The 1960s television series ‘The Prisoner’ warned against asking questions when living in The Village. ‘Questions, a Burden to Others’, followed by the ever-so slightly patronising companion message ‘Answers, a Prison for Oneself’. Nobody wants you to ask questions, is the message – and you will not like any answers that you get. Perhaps they saw it as ‘Divisive’?

‘Divisive’ has become a very popular word in the press recently, in reference to referenda: it is supposed to indicate that asking a referendum question is a bad thing, because it ‘divides’ people. The usage seems to me to be desperately trying to ignore that any democratic process – whether referendum or election – becomes therefore intrinsically ‘divisive’. There is a reason why they ring a ‘Division bell’ in Westminster to signal MPs to go to their division lobby to vote for or against a resolution. Should they rename it something less ‘choicey’? Something that sounds less – dare I say it? – ‘separatist’? If democracy was not divisive, then that would be because everyone thought the same….and therefore there would be no reason to check which was the preferred option for any given question. So, in that sense, ‘divisive’ though asking a question may be, it is also kind of intrinsic to the idea of democracy in the first place…otherwise people are just being dictated to. (We might guess that the individuals that ran The Village were more in favour of the latter – rather than the former – option of government.)

Therefore, the treatment by politicians and the press of ‘Divisiveness’ as incredibly unusual in a democracy, and something that people need to be protected from, needs closer examination. Political elections are HIGHLY ‘Divisive’ – and the fact that they happen pretty much annually, whether for local councils, Holyrood, Westminster or to the European Parliament – suggests that society somehow manages to recover and continue on, no matter how ‘divisive’ – or ‘choice-ive’ – multiple parties on a ballot paper are. So are the dangers of being ‘Divisive’ more unique to the clearly terrible phenomenon of a referendum, rather than an election, then? Astonishingly, Switzerland – which had 31 referenda between 1995 and 2005, to answer 103 questions – has not collapsed into internecine violence and anarchy as a result of this ‘division’ in its political culture. It seems that asking questions is not so dangerous after all.

One thing that the prospective referendum certainly seems to have been ‘Divisive’ about, is the response of the political parties. At their conference in Perth on Saturday, the Scottish LibDems said they would oppose a second independence referendum – just as Nick Clegg (former Deputy Prime Minister and ex-party leader) said that Westminster should not block one. The leaders of the political parties opposing the SNP in Holyrood have faired little better: the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has gone on record saying that she opposed a second independence referendum, but that Westminster should not block it.  In September 2015, the Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said that she would allow Scottish Labour MSPs to have a free vote on a second independence referendum, even permitting them to campaign for independence. However, since then she has moved from her position, saying in July 2016 in the wake of the EU Referendum (The Guardian on 7th July) that it would be “categorically wrong” for the UK Government to refuse a second independence referendum, and now saying that she will oppose such a referendum. And – to top it all – the UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said on Saturday that it would be “fine” for there to be a second Scottish independence referendum. He changed his position again this morning, just before Nicola’s announcement from Bute House – but not before a Labour supporter had started a Twitter poll on whether or not Corbyn was right to approve of the referendum, and 89% of the votes cast said ‘Yes, he was’. So the latest statement from Jeremy is that Scottish Labour will vote to block the referendum in Holyrood, but UK Labour will not vote to block it in Westminster. All clear, then? All this from the party that brought you the new Twitter hashtag of #unitescotlandnotdivide with zero sense of irony.

‘Divisive’ – the word was even used by No.10 Downing Street today, straight after Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement, when the Prime Minister’s Office said that an independence referendum would be ‘Divisive’. This would presumably be ‘Divisive’ in a similar way to BrExit, except that BrExit gets more and more ‘Divisive’ as it continues, steering harder towards an antiquated imperialistic world-view, and away from the liberal state that people once thought the UK was…even going so far as for Theresa May to threaten to take devolved areas back from Holyrood.

In this regard, Theresa May seems to have been keen to be as provocative as possible and make people in Scotland feel divided from the UK’s decision-making, even if she does not want them to vote for independence so that Scotland is actually away from the UK. That single odd action by Theresa May at the Scottish Conservative conference a couple of weeks ago – talking about taking powers back from the Scottish Parliament, for some new devolved settlement – exemplifies how unnecessary it was for Westminster to be facing the prospect of another Scottish independence referendum again, especially so soon. All of this is happening as a result of the UK Government’s mismanagement not so much of the 2014 Referendum, as of the aftermath of the Referendum: from Cameron’s English Votes for English Laws on the morning of the 19th September 2014 (rendering Scottish MPs second-class members of the Westminster parliament, hot on the heels of promises that the Union was a partnership of equals), on to the homeopathic treatment of the Smith Commission to make the promised ‘Vow’ an irrelevance. All this, just at the time they should have been endeavouring to woo people back, to make them feel valued as part of the Union – as JK Rowling opined in her advocacy of a ‘No’ vote: “I doubt whether we will ever have been more popular, or in a better position to dictate terms, than if we vote to stay.” But no: on it went, with the disappointing response to the differential EU referendum result for Scotland…it has all been botched by an indifferent Westminster government, who did not seem to realise that there was ever a ‘peace’ to win, once the first campaign was finished and won.

So ‘wooing’ (rough or otherwise) was the path not chosen by the UK Government. Instead, the message of ‘gotcha, suckers’ was writ large. They were so confident that such an SNP mandate was a one-off circumstance that would not be repeated, that they could be as boorish and triumphalist as they wanted about their victory, secure in the knowledge of the inevitable collapse in support for the Scottish National Party now they had lost the September 2014 Referendum. This was clearly the end of the SNP, and the end of aspirations for an independent Scotland.

Well, not so much. We arrived today at the First Minister’s residence in Bute House for a morning press conference called at short notice. A series of recent polls showing increased support for Scottish independence (one even exceeding 50%) and the campaign had not even had the starting pistol fired. At the end of the First Minister’s announcement to the press that she was going to ask the Scottish Parliament to pass legislation for a second referendum on Scottish independence, a fundraiser was launched to raise a million pounds for the referendum campaign in 100 days. In seven hours, it had raised over a hundred thousand pounds (almost an hour after Wings Over Scotland’s annual crowd-fundraiser had coincidentally hit the same figure following 14 days on Indiegogo).

As much as the rhetoric has been about ‘Divisiveness’ from the unionist parties run from London, it is the negative actions of those parties that have led to a uniting of Scots from different party backgrounds under a Yes banner. Far more so than when the last starting gun was fired, back in 2012, with support for Scottish independence on 28%. The answer this time may – or may not – be different, but the responsibility for the question being asked lies solely in London.

 

“A country denied the ability to run its own economy is blamed for being bankrupt by the authority which exercises those macro-economic powers over it. The British Treasury pulls our wings off then laughs when we can’t fly.” (Derek Bateman, former BBC Scotland broadcaster)

(Thanks to Chris Cairns of Cairnstoon for the above cartoon, first published 11/3/2017)

P.S. I would love to have said that Scotland might culturally be more comfortable with the idea of having referenda than many other areas of the UK, due to its tradition that the people – rather than parliament – are sovereign…but that might be giving a lot of people a little more credit for knowing more details of Scottish political history than might perhaps be realistic. Especially as I could not have claimed to have known this myself before the previous referendum occurred…. 🙂

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